Congress Cuts Block Grant Program
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
The new fiscal year has come too quickly for the federal government. It starts tomorrow, and for the ninth year in a row, Congress has failed to pass the spending bills needed to keep the federal government operating. So today the Senate approved a stopgap funding measure that keeps the government in business until mid-November. Funding levels will remain unchanged for most programs. But social safety net funds for the poorest of Americans are being cut in half. NPR's David Welna has the story.
DAVID WELNA reporting:
Before they left town yesterday for a weeklong break, members of the House passed a so-called continuing resolution that averts a government shutdown tomorrow. In it, all federal programs continue to be funded at current levels unless bills passed by either the House or Senate for the next fiscal year call for lower funding levels. As it happens, a House bill cuts funding for community services block grants by more than 50 percent for most states, and by 75 percent for the 13 smallest states. Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, pointed out today that the stopgap bill the House sent over to the Senate dramatically slashes federal support for some of the nation's poorest people.
Senator TOM HARKIN (Democrat, Iowa): This money goes out quarterly. It's used quarterly. It means that tomorrow--tomorrow--the community services block grants will be cut 50 percent. Not next year. Tomorrow. In real dollars. This isn't some phony-baloney stuff.
WELNA: Harkin declared on the Senate floor that despite all the post-Katrina talk about increased awareness of the plight of the poor, the emergency bill actually reduces social safety net funding to 1986 levels.
Sen. HARKIN: 3.7 million children, 1.8 million adults who had not completed high school, 1.1 million people who are disabled served by community services block grants. That's who we're talking about. We're not talking about people like us who have all this money. We're talking about the poorest of the poor.
WELNA: Harkin proposed an amendment to restore funding for the block grants to current levels. But Alaska Republican Ted Stevens said that would change the bill and require that the House come back and vote on it again.
Senator TED STEVENS (Republican, Alaska): If we don't pass this bill without amendment, not only will the House be back here, we'll be back here for days wrangling over what to do because we can't get the House back by midnight.
WELNA: Harkin wasn't buying that argument.
Sen. HARKIN: We say, `Well, that's a burden on the House. All these members--they've probably caught their planes and they've gone home.' My, my, my. Well, I remember when the House came back on Palm Sunday to pass a resolution on the Terri Schiavo case. If they can do that, they can come back and correct this.
WELNA: But the Republicans who control the Senate clearly did not want to force their House colleagues to dash back before midnight to vote on the continuing resolution once again. Mississippi Republican Thad Cochran, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, said Democrats were pushing the envelope with no time to spare.
Senator THAD COCHRAN (Republican, Mississippi): The next fiscal year starts on October 1. Here we are at the end of the last fiscal year. This is shenanigans. Purely and simply.
WELNA: But for Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter, the shenanigans were caused by House Republicans.
Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): It is not an infrequent occurrence that the House leaves town and leaves us with a gun at our head.
WELNA: In the end, Harkin's amendment was rejected in a straight party-line vote and the stopgap funding measure was passed on a voice vote, even though the nays were as loud as the yeas. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
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